Fit-to-fly doesn’t prevent COVID-19 but is an increased burden to Thais abroad

To prevent people infected with COVID-19 from entering Thailand, The Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) announced that Thai people abroad who wish to return to Thailand must present 2 documents to the airline: a medical certificate confirming that they are healthy enough to travel, and a travel certificate issued by the Embassy of Thailand, the Consulate General of Thailand, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs within 72 hours before traveling. In case of failing to present the complete documents, airlines can refuse to issue boarding passes. This measure and its complicated process were met with complaints from Thai people abroad, some of whom submitted petitions to the Central Administrative Court and created an online campaign #bringthaihome

Why is this measure not effective?

The incubation period of COVID-19 differs from person to person. The estimated incubation period is 2-14 days. However, as reported by the local government of Hubei Province on February 22, some patients had an incubation period of 27 days. Therefore, the medical certificate issued shortly before traveling is not an effective measure to screen the asymptomatic infected from the uninfected.

Also, after the government announced this measure, the number of people who need the certificates suddenly increased as it is during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis in many countries. In some countries which do not use an online travel certificate issuing system, this measure indirectly forces many people to queue up for the travel certificates at the embassy, and to travel to hospitals where they risk being exposed to the virus in order to obtain medical certificates. These situations increase the possibility of COVID-19 transmission to the uninfected people who need the documents.

A case to substantiate this argument is a Thai student in the UK who had a high fever but was denied hospitalization in London and, therefore, had to travel back to Thailand. However, she had to queue at the embassy for the certificate. On that day, there were over 200 Thais at the embassy who also needed the same document. After this student successfully returned to Thailand, she was confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.

Requesting a medical certificate in many foreign countries is not an easy process. In the UK, as the COVID-19 outbreak is escalating and the health system cannot meet the national demand, foreigners living in there, particularly nationals from countries at risk, will be told not to travel to seek medical attention at the hospital and risk being infected. Thai people who need medical certificates at the moment cannot easily do so. And even though the embassy is able to find Thai doctors to help with the physical examination in London, there are still Thais outside London who wish to come back home but are unable to make medical appointments for the certificates, at least not in the near future.

Thai people living in Japan will have to pay a high fee for medical certificates. The average cost of issuing a medical certificate in 2012 was 4,841 yen per certificate (about 1,844 baht). The cost could be as high as 10,000-20,000 yen (about 3,000-6,000 baht) at some places. The medical insurance which every Thai person holding a Japanese Residence Card must apply for does not cover medical document fees. In addition, the health screening process before issuing a medical certificate is very detailed so as to prevent any mistakes that may lead to physicians’ liability. Therefore, in some hospitals, it may take longer than 7 days.

Fit-to-fly is a burden for embassies and airlines.

Before the announcement of the said measure, CAAT did not adequately inform the officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in advance, resulting in confusion about the process of issuing travel certificates, which tests to be conducted, and with what procedures. CAAT also failed to take into account that the number of Thais who wish to return home could be so large that it might exceed the capacity of the embassy personnel.

The impact of the sudden issuance of the fit-to-fly measure is felt by airlines as well. One day after the fit-to-fly measure took effect, Aeroflot Russian Airlines, flight SU6275, Moscow-Bangkok could welcome only 3 passengers on board because the remaining passengers did not have the travel certificate or medical certificate and could not travel. In some cases, the airline had to fly an empty plane to Thailand. This sudden measure did not allow time for airlines to plan, and in some cases, they had to refund the tickets.

Repatriation strategies of other countries during the COVID-19 crisis

Facing the global COVID-19 crisis, governments around the world have one great challenge to take: bring their people back home. Different countries come up with similar measures. For example, the UK government joining hands with the airline industry invested 75 million pounds in creating an MoU to charter flights from leading airlines – Virgin, Easyjet, Jet and Titan Airways – to bring British people in high-risk countries back to their homeland. High-risk countries are assessed based on the number of British travelers stranded there, the areas where they are stranded, and the risk of getting infected, including the local health situation. The chartered flights will begin operating in Ghana and Tunisia. The goal is to help a number of British tourists stranded in countries where trade routes are completely closed to return to the UK. Upon their return, the tourists must comply with the quarantine measures.

The German government allocated 50 million euros to the “Luftbrücke” project and agreed to cooperate with airlines to bring German people back from the countries that have closed their borders, especially from Morocco the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the Maldives, and Egypt.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia is planning to evacuate Australian citizens, and people with two citizenships, from high-risk countries. Although Australia does not have a consulate in Wuhan, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government is discussing with the Chinese government for the arrangement.

Japan sent 3 planes to pick up the citizens, bringing the number of returnees to more than 550 people.

In a neighboring country like Cambodia, passengers traveling from France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Spain, or the United States will not be allowed to enter the country unless they are Cambodian nationals. Cambodia does not have any additional conditions against the Cambodian who wish to return home.

Fit-to-fly doesn’t prevent COVID-19 but is an increased burden to Thais.

Such measure issued by the Thai government, in addition to overburden Thai people who wish to return home, clearly restricts the Freedom of Movement guaranteed by Articles 25, 38 and 39 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand. There is no empirical scientific reason to support that this method can reduce the number of infected people entering Thailand. Worse yet, it increases the risk of contracting COVID-19 for Thai people who have to travel to the embassy for the travel certificates and to hospitals for the medical certificates. CAAT does not provide sufficient tools to support and facilitate the process for Thai people abroad, and lacks proper coordination with Thai officials working abroad.

If the government’s ultimate goal of implementing a fit-to-fly measure is to stop infected people from traveling to Thailand, the procedures and requirements that are taking place right now may lead to an opposite scenario, by putting Thai people abroad at a greater risk of being infected. Therefore, the Thai government should cancel both the use of travel certificates and medical certificates as a condition for Thai people abroad to gain entry to Thailand. A measure that should be taken instead is to allow Thais who wish to return home to travel back without having to go through any unjustifiable process. Concerned airlines must take measures as stated by the INTERNATIONAL AIR TRANSPORT ASSOCIATION (IATA) to make sure that passengers are least exposed. Upon arriving in Thailand, there must be quarantine measures to ensure that the returnees do not spread the disease any further. Such measures will meet the government’s needs to provide more efficient protect to Thai people inside and outside Thailand.

This proposal is part of “TDRI Policy Series on Fighting COVID-19”

1Government must mobilize resources to solve the COVID-19 crisis and ease people’s suffering in a comprehensive and straight-to-the point manner
2Beware of violence during pandemic as home may not be a safe place for everyone
3How to lift a lockdown